Parenting Apart, Additional Needs, Domestic Abuse
I have a friend who often comments that one of the most vulnerable times in our lives is when we divorce...but often, for many reasons, this is when churches step away from families. Why is this? Theological objections? Awkwardness? Fear? Whatever the reasons divorce is when families need us most and so I trust that the following insights give confidence to be able to navigate this complex time with families compassionately and helpfully.
The first thing to absorb is that divorce leaves an emotionally chaotic wave of pain for a long time. When working with parents who are going through divorce I try to prepare them for at least 18 months of self-focussed and painful thinking; they may have suffered deep rejection, loss of their home, even access to their children. As a church leader it’s no use you asking them to put their children first or be a place of stability, they are very unlikely to be able to think that clearly for some time. It will come, however unlikely it may look at first (and they will find it deeply comforting to find out that there is life after divorce) but it won't happen straight away. I volunteer for a brilliant charity called Restored Lives that works with people who are leaving or have been left and who gently take them through some of the hard decisions...relational, financial, parental that they are going to have to negotiate. This is helpful because it means that some of the difficult truths of divorce can be handled by people expert in their delivery...and it’s brilliant for people going through divorce to meet others and share experiences and peer support each other, so introducing them to Restored Lives is a great first step.
Within my day job at Fegans the messages I give to divorcing parenting is rather like a poop sandwich (and I prepare them for this!!). Keep the poop part short...it’s not helpful to dwell on the damage caused to our own children but rather the hope we can leave behind.
Firstly the positive...well done for looking for support, good job on the courage to share, thank you for trusting me with such personal and painful experiences. Things are going to get better, the pain will ease, hope will return.
Secondly the poop. Divorce is a horrific shock to children as all of their attachment (how we all build our identity and relationship with others) is based on having a secure environment around them. When the person who has promised since your birth to "always be there for you" suddenly isn't anymore, it raises many insecurities that can manifest as anger, silence, petulance, blame....and even hate. In addition, houses, schools, routines all change. And however much we try to say it’s not the child's fault, they simply don't have the capacity to be able to believe this. And so they think it is their fault. If only they have been more well behaved, didn't row or answer back maybe this would never have happened.
Then thirdly hope. Here are 5 key strategies they can help to rebuild families.
Attachment is rebuildable...but it takes time. one to one, undivided by phone or internet (on the parents behalf!). Quality, consistent, daily, time. Not much...just 10 mins...but regularly.
Speak well of your ex. This may be like sucking poison from a cess pit...but it’s amazing for the wellbeing of the children. It also means that the parent who speaks well of the other is the most trusted parent which is worth the pain. Check out this 2 minute video of why.
Approval. Divorcing people have often lost any sense of self worth and therefore may struggle to praise their children....but it’s essential for them to know that you don't just love them...you like them, you like being with them, you admire them, their courage, their kindness, their care.
Keep everything as stable as you can...house, routines, school, friends. Even if we want a fresh start...it’s often the last thing children need. Don't bring new partners into a volatile mix until things settle.
Let the children be angry, sad, shout...it’s how they process. Better that they process in front of you than silently and alone...or even worse, in chat rooms.
Try to remind people you are talking with that parenting is a long game; it’s not about who is favourite today, but rather are you a part of your grandchildrens lives. And whatever children say to us now, in the heat of divorce, if we manage it well they will re-evaluate how we did as parents as they older. Just like you re-evaluated your parents when you become a parent.
If you need a little more guidance, Fegans has created a free animated video series aimed at separated families on how to navigate the complex waters ahead...sign up here.
Ian Soars is the CEO of Fegans – a charity providing counselling to children, in addition to parent support, intervention and training.
Think of a 7-year old autistic child who is overwhelmed when greeted by bright lights, a wall of noise, a crowded room and an overload of different smells. Or a 10-year-old with dyslexia who loves sung worship, but finds reading words on a screen impossible because of the background images. Or a 14-year-old who uses a wheelchair and feels left out when asked to “jump up and worship”.
Around 20 per cent of children and young people have long-term additional needs or disabilities of some kind. Many of them, along with their families, feel excluded from a wide range of social activities, including church. So how can we meet their needs?
It’s about providing a better way for that 7-year-old. Thinking about when, how and where they arrive, as well as looking at alternative lighting. It’s about providing a screen with plain backgrounds and appropriate text fonts for that 10-year-old, and anyone else who might need it. It’s about changing what we say to include everyone. Perhaps saying “We’re going to worship now, please remain seated or stand, as you prefer…” would make all the difference to that 14-year-old.
Inclusion doesn’t stop at wider doors, ramps and disabled loos. It’s about creating places of belonging and developing the faith of everyone.
Appoint an inclusion champion
The most important strategy a church can put in place is to appoint someone who ‘owns’ inclusion. Someone who will look critically at the things the church does through the lived experiences of the children and families you reach. What is hard for them to access? What modifications could easily be made to improve things?
Ideally, this role would be held by someone with a lived experience of additional needs or disability, either in their own lives or as a carer, to ensure inclusion is done with and not to anyone being supported. Inclusion champions provide a primary point of contact for those with additional needs, but the rest of the team must also be involved.
Build support strategies
Understanding what support strategies are in place in other areas of children’s lives (for example at school or home) and bringing them into church activities offers ready-made ideas, as well as providing consistency and continuity. Asking parents or carers how their child likes to be supported and helped, and what they enjoy doing, is likely to unlock useful and helpful conversations. Remember to ask children themselves about how they like to be supported. Inclusion should always involve the person being included.
You could make one-page profiles to help parents or carers and young people describe themselves. You could also use a visual timetable using symbols or photos. This is a great tool to help children understand where they are in the programme, what is expected of them, and what is coming next (including when ‘snack time’ is!).
“Inclusion should always involve the person being included”
Recruit one-to-one support
Some young people with additional needs can become anxious if they are left to cope on their own. Providing one-to-one support can help them understand what is happening and what they are supposed to be doing.
People who may not see themselves leading children’s talks, songs or games may be happy to sit with and support a child. Seek people who are caring, empathic and nurturing. The grandparent generation can often be great at this. Sometimes other young people can fulfil this role as ‘buddies’, getting alongside their peers or younger children and supporting them (with suitable supervision). Ideally, this role should not be filled by parents or carers. They need to be spiritually fed themselves in church!
Sensory overload can be a common issue for children with a range of additional needs, so providing ways for them to manage and regulate this is essential. A sensory calm room or zone with calming lighting, relaxing sounds, beanbags and safe things for children to engage with and help them relax will be useful.
If this isn’t possible, a pair of ear defenders can make all the difference between someone enjoying the programme and being in physical pain because of the noise. Another useful addition is a ‘fiddles’ box, which contains items that can be, squeezed, clicked or simply fiddled with. The sensory support this provides can aid focus and concentration.
We learn best when our learning is fun, engages us in activities we enjoy and meets our preferred learning style: watching, listening or, in most cases, doing. It’s no different for young people with additional needs. If they enjoy jigsaws or Lego, get them to build a jigsaw or Lego model of the theme you’re exploring. Did you know there is a (Lego) Brick Bible? You could also encourage them to build Bible scenes online in Minecraft.
Getting inclusion right makes our church a place of belonging for everyone; a place where people are missed for all the right reasons if they can’t come. There is plenty of support available, so you don’t have to do this on your own. To access training and other services, visit the ‘partners’ section of the Additional Needs Alliance website or join its Facebook group. Take the first step on your inclusion journey today, in prayer.
Mark Arnold (The Additional Needs Blogfather) is the Additional Needs Ministry Director for Urban Saints’, Co-Founder of the ‘Additional Needs Alliance’, contributor to a range of publications, and dad to James a 17 year-old Autistic, with Epilepsy and Learning Disability.
The Covid-19 lockdown has seen an unprecedented rise in domestic abuse across the world. The NSPCC have reported that contacts to their helpline about the impact of domestic abuse on children have surged by almost a third since the start of the lockdown, to an average of one an hour.
In the UK, national domestic abuse charity Refuge, which provides specialist support for women and children experiencing domestic violence, has noted that in the early stages of the lockdown, traffic to its website rose by 150 per cent and there was an average 25 per cent increase in calls to its national domestic abuse helpline.
Restored, a Christian charity that aims to end violence against women, has put together lockdown resources for victims of abuse, church leaders and men.
Supporting victims and survivors
Isolation is a tool that perpetrators already know how to use as a tactic to gain control. The lockdown can, therefore, appear to legitimise isolation and perpetrators will use it as a cover for abuse.
The police can help. If you are being abused call 999 and press 55; the police will recognise you may not be able to talk but can give you instructions. An alternative is Refuge’s national domestic abuse helpline, 08082000247. The charity can help you find specialist services, from a refuge to a lawyer, which you can find out more about on our website, at any time of day or night.
Our resources also provide more information on how to make you and your children safe. Children may not be the ones experiencing abuse, but getting to safety will be beneficial for both you and you children, who may be experiencing depression, self-harm or eating disorders.
Supporting church leaders
Domestic abuse is hard to see. Many women do not think they are being abused and perpetrators are good at hiding it. But there are signs you can train yourself to look for.
Restored’s Church Pack is a starting point to help you understand abuse, and our Covid-19 toolkit will help you apply this to lockdown. We have also arranged a weekly series of one-hour training sessions via video link. Email email@example.com to book a free place. Visit Teatime Talks for more information.
Prolonged periods in isolation and working from home will generate feelings of restriction and make nerves fray. These are not an excuse to take things out on others and find a scapegoat in your partner. These are times to take control, own your feelings and find ways of distressing. Our leaflet for men will give you practical advice on doing this.
For more information contact the Restored team at firstname.lastname@example.org